We know how daunting it can be to start a new business, especially if you’re disrupting an industry or creating an entirely new one. When there is no path to follow, the biggest question is, where do I start? There is so much to do but before you get ahead of yourself, let’s start at the beginning. To kickstart the process (and ease some of those first-time founder nerves) we’re asking successful entrepreneurs to share their story in our new series, From Scratch. But this isn’t your typical day in the life. We’re getting down to the nitty gritty from writing a business plan (or not) to sourcing manufacturers and how much they pay themselves, we’re not holding back. If you want to know how to start a business, you’ve come to the right place.
“Always be your own biggest fan. If you don’t truly love your own product or believe in your own brand, people will know.”
Lauren Jin, Founder, CLE Cosmetics
In the highly saturated industry of cosmetics, there is an abundance of brands that sell makeup to look good but, what about makeup that is designed to feel good, on both the skin and the mind? Sounds groundbreaking but disruption wasn’t part of the plan for CLE Cosmetics founder Lauren Jin. Her objective was simple: to create quality beauty products that nurture your skin and enhance your natural beauty, not hide it—disruption was a side effect.
Using all naturally-sourced and cruelty-free ingredients, Jin’s brand mission is based upon the concepts of universal beauty, transparency, and the allure of individuality. Initially pursuing a career in fashion, Jin switched gears and started from scratch, setting out on a mission to redefine beauty with a brand that celebrates all facets of femininity.
Among the many factors of CLE that set it apart from other beauty companies, the cosmetics brand derives inspiration from Korean Beauty technology and prides itself on the quality of its unique ingredients. Jin aims to make CLE’s products dual-purpose, creating makeup that looks great while making your skin feel great.
By selling products that invite customers to embrace their inner feminine, Jin has created a brand that stands out among a sea of more conventional cosmetic brands. In this feature of From Scratch, Jin clues us in on the unconventional beauty of taking the road less traveled.
Did you write a business plan? If yes, was it helpful? If no, what else did you use instead? Why did you not take that approach?
“I’m not sure if it counts as an official business plan, but I created a yearly goal and a list of things that I wanted to achieve. From there, I worked backward to solidify a step-by-step plan to execute these goals. Of course, over the years, I’ve had to tweak the plan as I went along. However, I’ve found that creating a concrete list of goals and plans has not only given me a strategy forward but also confidence in myself.
“I had to chart out each specific quarter of the business—one of my goals was to break even within five years through retail partnerships and sales. Though this felt daunting given that my background wasn’t in business, I felt that I had the right intuition to move forward. So, I honed in on that intuition instead of taking on a more conventional approach. Previously, I studied womenswear at Parsons and the Royal College of Arts in London, then went on to work for brands such as 3.1 Phillip Lim and VPL, where I learned about business infrastructure. I saw the inner workings of their business operations, as well as what it takes to create a company’s culture. I had the experience of working at VPL, which was quite a niche, as well as Phillip Lim, an international brand. Though the companies’ goals were mainstream, experiencing each department at these companies like it was its own individual design house was invaluable to me.
“VPL folded in the mid-2000s because the founder/designer and the financial advisor didn’t share the same vision. After that experience, I’ve been extremely careful to create a brand that seamlessly marries both the creative vision and business goals. My goal now is to lead the brand for ten years, then revisit the overall business later on, especially if there are possible acquisitions. I believe that ten years will give us enough time to build a strong brand.
“My vision for CLE Cosmetics is not to be “the best,” then suddenly die out. I’d rather focus on slowly building the right foundation for the company—creating a true namesake brand, as well as a cult following. I’d like for CLE to stand as its own solid figure in the beauty industry. And honestly, it’ll take time to achieve that. Instead of any aggressive campaigning, such as billboard ads, I’d like to move the company forward in a strategic way. I also don’t want to be burdened by any external finances, so ideally, we’d work with angel investors and break even later on. Amidst the onslaught of beauty brands and the saturation in the industry, I believe that slow and steady wins the race.”
How did you come up with the name? What was the process like? How did you know it was the right name? What are some of the things you considered during that process?
“The name CLE occurred to me while I was walking around London. At the time, I was playing around with abstract words—I wanted to create something that didn’t have a specific definition and that wasn’t too complicated. Ideally, it’d be something light, airy, and quick to say. No fuss. I knew that CLE was the right name when I realized how easy it was to pronounce. It just rolls off the tongue and feels nice to hear out loud.
“However, it doesn’t mean anything—the brand, as a whole, embodies the name and meaning. Also, it’s not an acronym, but more of a representation of the community of people who use our products for its functionality and beautiful design.”
What were the immediate things you had to take care of to set up the business? (Website domain/setup, trademark, name, business name listing social channels, etc)
“Once I settled on the name, I immediately checked to see if it was legally available to use. Thankfully, it was. I then signed up for a business license in Los Angeles, then secured the website domain and social media handles (Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter). After that, I worked with an attorney to set up the trademark, the corporation, and then the necessary infrastructure to hire a team.”
What research did you do for the brand beforehand? Why would you recommend it?
“The idea of CLE was actually a continuation of a concept that I’ve developed over the years as a womenswear designer. I’d highly recommend putting in the necessary prep work with extensive research, planning, and simply even letting yourself marinate on your concept. There’s value in taking a step back and revisiting your ideas with fresh eyes. By doing so, you’ll be able to back up your brand and its ethos that you’ve developed.
“Over the course of seven years, CLE was an ongoing idea of a certain woman that I envisioned in my mind. I didn’t research any competitors because the brand was an extremely personal concept for me. I think I’m better off for doing so, because it was only me, and there’s only one of me. Ultimately, I was able to keep the brand true to who I am, instead of being influenced by any other competitors in the industry.“
How did you find the manufacturer/production facility that you use? Did you have any bad experiences? What did you learn? What advice do you have for other founders looking for a trustworthy manufacturer?
”Luckily, I haven’t had any bad experiences. I’ve had some hiccups on production timelines, but that came about more from unforeseen circumstances. The best advice I can give is to make sure that you find people with excellent communication within their company structure. By doing so, they’ll be able to relay information and updates as quickly as possible to you. Efficient communication is definitely the key to working with others.
“In South Korea, the manufacturers are very open to working with new businesses. They’ll try anything you want, so long as you’re able to clearly communicate with them. Of course, it helped that I’m fluent in Korean!
I’ve learned that the product development phase is crucial. Our Melting Lip Powder was our first product, and it took over one year to make. While the technology was there from the start, we had to ensure that the product launched with the correct shades.”
Did you self-fund the company? Did you raise seed money or initial investment money? Why/Why not? What would you recommend?
”Luckily, I was able to raise funding for the company with an angel investor, who’s been very supportive from the start. There wasn’t any seed money involved. The difference between both is that an angel investor allows for freedom by being pretty hands-off. As CLE’s CEO and creative visionary, I’m thankful that we started off in this way because it’s enabled me to build a brand on my own terms. Venture capitalists would’ve wanted to take control of the brand, so I’m thankful that I can maintain autonomy over it.”
How much did you pay yourself? How did you know what to pay yourself?
”Based on my past freelance work experiences as a student, I came to a conclusion of what my pay per hour should be. I then calculated that on a monthly and yearly basis, which gave me a good idea of how much I should be paid.”
How big is your team now? What has the hiring process like?
”Our team is still very small—we have two full-time employees and two freelancers. I was fortunate to meet some bold individuals who actually reached out to me about an opportunity at CLE first. I’ve seen that hiring can be very organic, where the right people will come onto the brand at the right time.
“I’ve also had the previous experience of trying to hire through a recruiting site but would get discouraged by some candidates who weren’t right for our company culture. Ultimately, it’s about finding the individuals that align with your brand ethos. I’ve found the best candidates when I’ve tapped into my own network of contacts. And as I mentioned earlier, one of my employees reached out to me organically, and we eventually hired her to join the team full-time. So, a lot of it falls on the right timing and a bit of luck.”
Did you hire an accountant? Who helped you with the financial decisions and set up? What do you recommend (programs etc) / advice do you have for that?
”Yes, hiring a third-party accountant was one of the first steps I made. I also made some financial decisions from simply learning as I went and researching as much as I could into any relevant topics. My advice would be to have a clear budget, but not be completely bound to it. I’d also be very cognizant of it while planning out the rest of the business. Also, just start anywhere! I used Excel.”
What has been the biggest learning curve during the process of establishing a business?
“The biggest learning curve has not only been managing my team but also myself. I’ve often neglected my own personal needs while trying to establish this business. I became so focused on building this brand that I started to put my own self on the back burner for the majority of my time.”
How did you get retailers to start stocking your product? Were you told no?
”Since I changed industries by starting CLE Cosmetics, it was difficult to find stockists at first because I didn’t have the right connections for it. So, I took the traditional route of going to trade shows and forging my own connections from the ground up. We’ve definitely gotten our fair share of no’s, but have learned from them and have moved onto other opportunities. Overall, I try to keep a positive outlook on these things—if a retailer says no, I believe that it wasn’t meant to be.”
Do you have a business coach or mentor? How has this person helped? Would you recommend one? How do you get one?
”I don’t have a business coach. Instead, I look up to women such as Stella McCartney, who has found success despite all the preconceived notions about her. Phoebe Philo is another example of someone who’s stayed true to herself. At the height of her career at Chloé, she took time off to be with her kids, then came back to take the helm at Céline. There shouldn’t be fear around spending time with your family, then reentering the workforce. I admire these qualities in these two women—how they carry themselves, how genuine they seem, and how they’ve excelled in both their career and personal lives.”
How did you promote your company? How did you get people to know who you are and create buzz? Did you know anything about marketing before this venture?
”Our main source of press and marketing was Instagram, at first. I quickly came to understand that Instagram was the best platform to spread brand awareness. Fortunately, I was able to work with freelancers and third-party agencies to help me with this marketing, as I didn’t know much about it in the beginning.
“Lately, we’re interested in women who aren’t just conventionally beautiful but are unique. We want to reach a specific demographic of women who were real—your everyday girl. The type of woman who’s natural, effortless, and doesn’t want or need to pile on the makeup. We want to speak to the working woman who wears makeup for all-day wear, as well as the fun, quirky woman who appreciates more of the creative aspects of makeup. We also honed in on micro-influencers, who, on their own, are big influences in their own communities. We’ve never gone for top-tier influencers.”
What is one thing you didn’t do in the setup process, that ended up being crucial to the business and would advise others to do ASAP?
“I’d advise any new business owners to always think two steps ahead—whether that’s in planning, product development, press schedules, as well as any foreseeable speed bumps along the way. I also wish that we had focused more on brick and mortar opportunities for our consumers to experience our products in a tactile way. You just don’t get the same experience on an e-commerce website. I also wish that we had a better video strategy—we’ve focused on educational video content, but we’re not seeing the lift from it yet.”
For those who haven’t started a business (or are about to) what advice do you have?
“My advice would be to always be your own biggest fan. If you don’t truly love your own product or believe in your own brand, people will know.”